MONMOUTH — In two weeks, the Buchanan Center for the Arts will welcome in “Journey Stories,” a traveling Smithsonian exhibit.
The exhibit focuses on “how our ancestors came to America,” with a specific look at how the advancements in transportation affected people. It is part of the the Illinois Humanities Council’s Museum on Main Street program. Monmouth is the last stop on the Illinois portion of the tour the exhibit will be open from Jan. 30 to March 14.
BCA Executive Director Susan Twomey has been working tirelessly to prepare the local portion of Journey Stories, which will be paired with the traveling national exhibit. The BCA and Warren County Library are partners in the program.
As she prepares for the final stages, Twomey’s office is filled to the brim with old pictures and historical artifacts, such as a variety of Western Stoneware crocks, land deeds from the 1800s and old court records from famous area cases.
“I’ve learned a lot about our history,” she said.
Twomey has been trying to absorb as much local history as she can from as many sources as possible, turing herself into an unofficial area historian. While it’s been difficult work, it’s also been rewarding.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” she said.
What’s on display
One of the historical topics the exhibit will take a deeper look at is the history of the Underground Railroad in the area, which will be the focus of a Feb. 4 talk by Simon Cordery called “Crossroads of the Nation: The Hidden History of the Railroads of Illinois.” Twomey wants the exhibit to honor Black History Month. In fact, some of the most interesting items that will be on display are a series of letters between two slaves, who were brought to the area by the Rodgers family, and the connection between the slaves and the family to Cyrus McCormick.
The Rodgers family purchased one of the first mechanical reapers used to harvest crops, and Cyrus McCormick actually came to the area in the 1840s to watch it be tested. But the connection between the two families goes deeper. Twomey has a series of letters to Jemima Hall — a slave who was freed by the Rodgers family but continued to work for the them after they moved from Missouri to Warren County — from Venus McCormick, who was owned by Robert McCormick and later purchased by the Rodgers family and freed.
“You make all these kinds of connections,” Twomey said.
Other interesting information Twomey has collected includes details of an extradition trial run by then Judge Stephen Douglas — for famed Mormon leader Joseph Smith, who was wanted in Missouri for murder — and documents regarding the first prisoners ever held in the Warren County Jail — five Native Americans from Keokuk’s tribe that were charged with the murder of William Martin.
The displays will also examine the influence of the railroad and other transportation improvements. Twomey plans a segment on railroad box car camps, including testimony from an area woman who was born in one. Journey Stories also looks at “life on the square” and how the advancement from sleds and buggies to affordable Model Ts and eventually to Buicks, changed life for farmers.
“The square is the central thing — farmers would come into town, shop and sometimes stay,” Twomey said.
Outside the BCA
In addition to displays at the arts center, there will be a film festival at Monmouth College’s Dahl Chapel and Auditorium each Tuesday evening in February. At the same time, an oral history documentary made by Monmouth College’s Chris Goble, where he talks to about a dozen pioneers from all over the area, will be playing on a continuous loop at the Warren County Library.
The documentary is already available online at the BCA Web site, http://bcaarts.org.
The Smithsonian portion of the exhibit will be arriving at the BCA Jan. 25. There will be a grand opening Saturday, Jan. 30 from 1 to 4 p.m. William Withuhn, the curator from the History of Technology Department at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and curator of Journey Stories, as well as Dennis Cremin, Assistant Professor and Director of the History Center at Lewis University, will be the guest speaker for the opening of Journey Stories in Monmouth.
Twomey said she wanted to acknowledge everyone who had donated material or volunteered their time to help with the local portion of the exhibit, saying “we flung a wide net and a lot of people have participated” including: Warren County Library Director Larisa Good; Monmouth College; Knox College; the National Railroad Hall of Fame; Oquawka Museum; Biggsville Horse and Buggy Museum; Janet Gaskill of Monmouth Soda Works; Jim Keefe; the Newberry Library; Jeff Rankin; and the Warren County Historical Society.
“I’m really proud and happy we have so many partners across the region,” Twomey said. “If I had more time, we would have more partners.”